Who are you — and what is your relationship with helicopters?
“I’m an editor with the helicopter industry magazine Vertical, which means I spend an inordinate amount of time writing and thinking about helicopters. I also fly them, although not as regularly these days as I would like! I hold FAA commercial pilot and flight instructor certificates with helicopter and instrument ratings, and have also held commercial helicopter pilot licenses in Canada and Australia.”
Which types have you flown?
“Most of my flight time is in Robinson R22s and R44s, since I learned to fly in Robinsons and spent about 800 hours instructing in them. I also have a fair amount of time in the Airbus AS350 series, the Bell 407, and various Bell mediums (UH-1B/H, Bell 205 and 412).
Then I’m lucky enough to have anywhere from 30 minutes to 20 hours in another 20 different helicopter types, ranging from the two-seat Guimbal Cabri G2 to the mighty Columbia Model 234 Chinook, which I flew as co-pilot on a powerline construction job for one of my more interesting story assignments.
For anyone who’s curious about the other 18 models, they are the Airbus EC120, EC155, and H215; Bell 206B, 206L, 505, and AH-1F; Enstrom 480B; Kaman HH-43 Huskie and K-1200 K-MAX; Leonardo AW139; MBB Bo.105; MD 500 and 902; Mil Mi-24D; Robinson R66; Schweizer 300; and Sikorsky S-55. I’ve flown simulators of a few other aircraft, but maybe the only one worth mentioning is the AW609 tiltrotor.”
What is your favourite helicopter, and why?
“I have to say the K-MAX, which is a single-seat heavy-lift helicopter with twin intermeshing main rotors that eliminate the need for a tail rotor. It’s not the most attractive helicopter (it has been described as two broomsticks, um, copulating in a dumpster) and neither is it the most modern (its rotor blades are actually made out of wood). But I’ve been fascinated by it since I first saw one landing on a fire helibase in 2005.
The single seat means that your first flight in the aircraft is also a solo, which is a little intimidating, especially since the intermeshing rotor system gives it somewhat different handling characteristics than a conventional helicopter. But Kaman prepares you pretty well for this by first giving you around five hours of dual flight instruction in the HH-43 Huskie, which has a similar rotor design. Getting to fly a K-MAX in 2014 was a huge thrill, and I was also the first woman to fly the model. It tells you something about the helicopter industry that it took 20 years from the certification date of the aircraft to reach that milestone, but better late than never.”
What is your opinion of the S-97?
“The compound helicopter that Sikorsky is pitching as the U.S. Army’s Future Attack Reconnaissance Aircraft? It still has a long way to go to prove itself, and it remains to be seen how it will stack up against the competition, but generally speaking I’m a total fangirl.
In particular, I’m really excited about the potential for the rear-mounted pusher propulsor to completely transform the way we fly — for example, by permitting rapid accelerations or decelerations in a level altitude, or the ability to maintain a stationary hover while pointing your nose to look up or down. These are revolutionary capabilities that go against everything that helicopter pilots today understand instinctively about how to fly. If anyone from Sikorsky is reading this, I hope they decide I’m the perfect person to write a pilot report on it.”
Please tell us about your experience with the Mi-24?
Sure. The Mi-24 — the fearsome Russian attack helicopter — isn’t something that those of us in the U.S. see very often, but in 2017 I had the opportunity to fly a privately owned Mi-24D in Lancaster, Texas, for a story. It’s one of three owned by the same person, two of which are operational and also available to the U.S. military for adversary orientation training.
Whenever I have a chance, I try to learn as much as possible about an aircraft before I jump in and fly it, even if it’s only for a short demo. Generally speaking, all helicopters have been designed to present a common flight control architecture to the pilot, so without understanding the underlying systems, it’s hard to render any judgment more meaningful than “Yep, flies like a helicopter.”
In this case, I was able to get my hands on a couple of different versions of the Mi-24D flight manual, and I spent a few weeks before my flight studying up on it. I did a double take when I read that prior to engine start-up the throttle (which is a twist grip like a motorcycle throttle) should be closed full left, away from the pilot — so, similar to a motorcycle throttle, but exactly opposite to the throttle in Western helicopters.
Now, there are also some differences with the pedals in the Hind compared to U.S.-designed helicopters, due to the different rotational direction of their main rotors. So in the Mi-24, which has a clockwise-rotating main rotor system, right pedal increases tail rotor thrust, whereas in something like a Huey, the left pedal is the power pedal. But many Airbus helicopters also have a clockwise-spinning main rotor system and right power pedal, and it’s really not a big deal. Right pedal still points the nose to the right, and left pedal points the nose to the left, so if you happen to input the wrong pedal, you’ll notice and instinctively correct, as long as you’re flying smoothly.
However, in certain circumstances, if you were to inadvertently roll the throttle in the wrong direction, you could potentially hurt yourself or the aircraft before you had a chance to recover. So that really caught my attention!
On the day of my flight, my instructor pilot, John Totty, put me through an abbreviated version of the adversary orientation training that he provides to the U.S. military. This was really interesting, because it took that understanding of aircraft systems to the level of tactical application. So, for example, the Mi-24D’s stub wings make it very fast, but also limit its banking ability. If you were facing off against the Hind in a slower but more manoeuvrable helicopter, how could you exploit this to your advantage? I ended our class feeling much more prepared for a Red Dawn scenario.
We combined my demo flight with an air-to-air photo shoot with the other Mi-24D and two R44 camera ships. I rode in the co-pilot/gunner compartment up front, and during our photo shoot there wasn’t much for me to do except marvel that I was flying in a Hind over Texas! Talk about Red Dawn.
Then we broke off to give me a chance to fly the aircraft. The Mi-24D isn’t meant to be flown from the front; the co-pilot/gunner has only basic flight instruments to allow them to make it home in an emergency. Also, the co-pilot’s flight controls are generally stowed: the cyclic is tucked forward, and the pedals are hidden in the sides of the compartment. The controls move into position through hydraulic pressure after the co-pilot squeezes a lever on the collective. Since they’re not designed for routine use, they’re not very ergonomic! So I can’t say it was a very comfortable flight, but I loved every minute of it. And yes, it flies like a helicopter.”
Tell us a little bit about Vertical
“Vertical is still a traditional print magazine — we publish six issues per year, plus four issues of a sister magazine, Vertical 911 (which focuses on the para-public and military sectors). But our online presence has certainly grown enormously since I joined the magazine 10 years ago. We cover all aspects of the civil helicopter industry plus military helicopter operations; so, we’re less interested in the minutiae of the defence industry than in how helicopters are being used in various theatres. That has afforded me some incredible reporting opportunities as well: I’ve been to Afghanistan a couple of times and recently embedded with the Royal Canadian Air Force in Mali.
We’re also really active on social media. All of us editors share tweeting duties, but I handle most of our posts on Facebook and Instagram. Like most people, I have a love-hate relationship with social media, but on balance it’s been a fantastic way for us to connect and share with rotorheads all over the world. Helicopters are involved with an amazing diversity of operations, and social media is a great way to showcase that.”
If you had to choose the ten most important helicopters in history, what would they be and why?
Wow, tough question. I don’t think there’s any Top 10 list that everyone will agree with, but here’s my stab at it in reverse chronological order by year of first flight (in parentheses).
10. Robinson R22 (1975): the two-seat piston engine model that made helicopter flight training relatively affordable, opening the industry to a wider range of pilots, myself included.
9. Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawk (1974): the bestselling successor to the Huey, which embodied a new emphasis on crashworthiness and survivability.
8. Aérospatiale AS350 (1974): the hugely versatile, bestselling successor to the Alouette series (which did not embody an emphasis on crashworthiness, unfortunately).
7. Boeing CH-47/Model 234 Chinook (1961): the most successful tandem-rotor helicopter, which continues to have important military and civilian applications.
6. Mil Mi-8 (1961): the world’s most-produced helicopter, with all of the far-reaching, wide-ranging impacts that implies.
5. Bell UH-1 Huey (1956): the iconic helicopter of the Vietnam War, which created a generation of pilots and mechanics who would shape the industry for decades to come.
4. Sud Aviation Alouette II (1955): the first production helicopter to be powered by a gas turbine engine and one whose derivatives, notably the SA 315B Lama, pioneered high-altitude operations.
3. Sikorsky H-19/S-55 (1949): a pioneering military transport helicopter that helped define air mobility, medevac, and search-and-rescue operations.
2. Bell 47 (1945): the first helicopter certified for civilian use, and consequently essential to the development of the civil helicopter industry.
Vought-Sikorsky VS-300 (1940): Igor Sikorsky’s first practical helicopter, and the one that established the single main rotor and tail rotor configuration that has dominated the industry since.
What is the future of rotorcraft technology?
“I foresee a bifurcation of the industry. On the high end, new designs like the Bell V-280, Sikorsky S-97 and SB-1, and Airbus Racer will deliver incredible speed and performance to military and other customers who have the need and the budget for them. Meanwhile, I expect that cost-effective electric VTOL aircraft will take over many missions, like passenger transport, that are currently being performed by light helicopters. There will still be a market for conventional helicopters, but it will be squeezed at both ends.
Autonomy will undoubtedly be a big part of our future, too. As someone who spends a lot of time writing about the tragic consequences of human error in helicopters, I don’t think this is a bad thing. But getting to the point where vertical-lift aircraft are routinely flying themselves in congested airspace is going to be hugely challenging. New autonomous systems are going to introduce new failure modes that may be difficult to anticipate, and as the recent 737 MAX crashes illustrate, human pilots don’t have a great track record of compensating for failures in complex systems that are largely opaque to them. There are a lot of smart people working on this problem, but they have a lot of hurdles to overcome.”
What advice would you give to new helicopter pilots?
“Well, if they haven’t already entered the helicopter industry, I would advise them to think long and hard before doing so. The civil helicopter industry in particular is not generally conducive to healthy relationships or work-life balance. Part of this is a necessary consequence of the unique work that helicopters do in hard-to-reach places. However, the industry also has a long history of taking advantage of people’s passion — flying helicopters is incredibly addictive, and there is always someone who is willing to put up with almost anything for the chance to do it.
But if you’re absolutely committed to being a helicopter pilot, then my advice is to constantly be looking to expand your horizons. There’s a tremendous amount of knowledge and talent in the helicopter industry, but it’s largely siloed. For example, depending on where you train and begin your career, you may really need to go out of your way to find instructors who are skilled in mountain flying. It’s worth seeking them out! Every new skill you pick up, every new perspective you expose yourself to will make you a better pilot, and along the way you’re likely to make connections that will open doors for you down the road. This curiosity should extend to every mechanical system on your aircraft, too, because the more you understand about how your helicopter works, the better position you’ll be in to keep yourself safe.”
What is the greatest myth about helicopters?
“A lot of people still seem to believe that helicopters can’t glide if they have a power failure. In fact they can in a manoeuvre called an autorotation, although the glide path is closer to, say, a turkey’s than an eagle’s. In an autorotation, air flowing upward through the rotor system drives the rotor blades, and the pilot maintains full controllability, as long as the helicopter continues to go generally down. It’s something that helicopter pilots practice extensively during their training, although the success of the manoeuvre in real life depends on a lot of different factors, including what you happen to be flying over when your engine quits. The one advantage that helicopters have over airplanes in this respect is that they don’t need as much real estate for a safe emergency landing.”
Tell me something I don’t know about them.
“How about the origin of the word helicopter? It’s derived from the Greek words helikos (spiral) and pteron (wing). Of course, the impulse of English speakers today is to divide it into “heli” and “copter,” which masks that etymology.”
What do you think about the way helicopters are portrayed in movies?
They do seem to explode with uncommon regularity, don’t they? Pretty much anytime a CGI team gets involved with a helicopter sequence, they ruin it for me. I’ve been on the sets of a couple of big-budget action movies, and the actual flying that goes on there is so much more compelling to me than the video game version that makes it into theatres. Movies also give the impression that around 80 percent of the civil helicopter industry is devoted to supporting super villains. This is not actually the case — which is perhaps unfortunate, because I would have so many amazing stories to write if it were.”
What should I have asked you?
“I think it’s worth mentioning how I became a helicopter pilot. Basically, I was working as a luxury travel writer when I went for my first helicopter ride while on assignment in British Columbia in 2004. The experience was so thrilling that I immediately went home and signed up for lessons. Aviation can feel like a exclusive club, but I think there are all kinds of people who would discover a similar passion given the right exposure to it. I’m proof that you don’t need to be an avgeek from childhood to find success in the industry. Of all of the futures I imagined for myself while growing up in rural New Mexico, someday flying a Russian attack helicopter never remotely crossed my mind. Yet, here I am. Pretty cool, huh?”
Elan Head is a helicopter pilot and special projects editor for Vertical, a North American-based magazine covering the helicopter industry.
(Mi-24 photographs: Skip Robinson)